Upon reaching the end of a heartbreaking tour at the Killing Field of Choeung Ek, visitors are left with a final thought: Genocide has happened in many places — America, Armenia, Poland, Darfur, the USSR… etc — and could happen again. But please remember Cambodia‘s story so that history doesn’t continue repeating itself.

And what a horrific story it is.

As the American War in Vietnam spilled over into Cambodia, the ruling monarch, Norodom Sihanouk, joined with the Communist Party of Kampuchea, or Khmer Rouge, to oppose an American-backed general, Lon Nol. Nol eventually overthrew Sihanouk, but on April 17, 1975 the Khmer Rouge retook control of the capital Phnom Penh. They immediately begun the dispersal of all urban centers — including Phnom Penh’s 2 million inhabitants — for a life of hard labor in the countryside.

Cambodia, Cambodian Genocide, Khmer Rouge, Toul Sleng, Pol Pot, Travel, Genocide, The Killing Fields, Choeung Ek, S-21,

That in itself is difficult to imagine, the desertion of all cities and forced agricultural labor for many who knew nothing of it. All in an effort to create a Maoist-agrarian utopia dreamed up by Pol Pot, the prime minister of the newly formed Democratic Kampuchea. Pol Pot wished to purify the country of foreign influences and capitalism and create a totally self-sufficient country; currency was abolished, religion and private property were forbidden, markets and schools were closed, and much of the modern Khmer music at the time was destroyed.

To become self-sufficient, Democratic Kampuchea needed to quickly triple its rice production — a nearly impossible task that led to the deaths of multitudes. In the following four years, an estimated 1.5 million to 3 million Cambodians perished — out of a population of 7 million — due to starvation, over working and mass executions. And if reading those numbers isn’t sickening enough, when tourists visit the piles of skulls at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center and learn how they came to be there, the nightmare becomes a lot more evident.

Cambodia, Cambodian Genocide, Khmer Rouge, Toul Sleng, Pol Pot, Travel, Genocide, The Killing Fields, Choeung Ek, S-21,Pol Pot’s attempt to purify the Cambodian society led to the eradication of former political leaders, intellectuals and ethnic minorities including the Chams, Vietnamese and Chinese. However, in reading the accounts of survivors and guards at prisons such as the notorious Tuol Sleng, it seems that many people were also imprisoned, tortured and killed for what was dubbed “pre-revolutionary lifestyles and crimes.” This included free market activity or having any contact with a foreign source (e.g. religious missionaries).

Cambodia, Cambodian Genocide, Khmer Rouge, Toul Sleng, Pol Pot, Travel, Genocide, The Killing Fields, Choeung Ek, S-21,Then there were the young and old, tortured and killed for simply being related to another person accused of “crimes” they may or may not have committed — often times signing false confessions written by guards. Then, the victims were trucked from Tuol Sleng to Choeung Ek — or one of the 20-something other killing fields around the country — for “relocation and re-education.” Ultimately this meant they were to be executed in the most barbaric ways.

Cambodia, Cambodian Genocide, Khmer Rouge, Toul Sleng, Pol Pot, Travel, Genocide, The Killing Fields, Choeung Ek, S-21,Being told they were going to work at night, prisoners were blindfolded and led to the edges of pits where they were beaten with clubs/axels/garden hoes until they fell and had their throats cut by a fellow countryman. The dead and dying were then covered with chemicals such as D.D.T. to limit the stench of decay and buried in mass graves. Meanwhile, music was played from loudspeakers hung in trees to cover up the screams of the dying.

The saddest grave to visit was one next to a tree now covered in colorful offerings. That same tree was once covered with blood and brain matter from infants who were beaten to death against it — swung by their feet and killed before their mothers, who would soon be buried with them.

Cambodia, Cambodian Genocide, Khmer Rouge, Toul Sleng, Pol Pot, Travel, Genocide, The Killing Fields, Choeung Ek, S-21, It’s hard to believe that all this started just under 40 years ago in Pol Pot’s “Year Zero.” It’s harder to believe that, since the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, it has taken nearly this long to bring many of those responsible to justice with little help from the international community. The mastermind of it all, Pol Pot, got off easy, dying from either suicide or poisoning shortly after being placed under house arrest in 1997.

Certainly, this was a miserable subject to visit as a tourist in Cambodia — but a subject I think we all must learn from in this shocking way. Walking the halls of Toul Sleng, one comes face to face with hundreds of the victims whose photographs — once part of the Khmer Rouge’s precise, Nazi-like record keeping — now hang there on display. That for me was the most powerful part of our day: looking at those numbered mugshots of men, women and little children and picturing myself, my family, my friends — probably some of you reading this right now — stuck in the same unbelievable nightmare.

Cambodia, Cambodian Genocide, Khmer Rouge, Toul Sleng, Pol Pot, Travel, Genocide, The Killing Fields, Choeung Ek, S-21,Genocide can and will happen again. Whether it’s near or far from home, we must all demand that our governments take action and not sit idly by as they did while Cambodia suffered. Remember their story and never let it be retold by another.

See more from our stay in Cambodia.

About The Author


Mark quit everything to travel the world for a year with his wife, Britnee. Along the way, he picked up a love for many other things, including illy coffee, Nepal, Bolivianos bills, and Thai beaches. Now happily home in Utah, Mark is a balding marketing professional with a mountain biking addiction.

6 Responses

  1. Scott M

    Thank you for writing about this. It’s incredible what a human being can do to another.

    • Mark Johnston

      Thanks Scott. It’s strange to think that so many people can follow the bidding of one human being, but then again I think much of the dirty work was carried out in fear for their own lives.

  2. Stacy

    Thankyou for this article.
    My in laws lived in Cambodia ten years ago for a few years, and they said that every person they met had lost at least one person under Pol Pot’s regime. It was still very much something that people struggled with daily.
    Before they lived there, I had no idea about any of this. I hope to go there someday. I wish it was taught about more in school.

    • Mark Johnston

      Thanks for reading Stacy. It’s hard to imagine a country doing that to itself, and harder to understand why others stood idly by.

  3. Kelly

    A very powerful post. I have thohugt about visiting Cambodia, and both Angkor Wat and the Toul Sleng Museum while in the country. The thing with places like Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek is that, on the one hand, you want to steer clear of them because of the horror that occurred there but, at the same time, they do exist for a reason to seek to ensure that the past may serve because, to paraphrase a famous quote, those who forget the past may be doomed to repeat it.

  4. Bea

    it really is hard to understand why…